Climate Change: What’s the problem with cows?

This post came about after seeing that Greta Thunberg and many others in the climate change movement are vegan. I hadn’t really thought that much about my food eating habits, because to me eating meat and dairy was normal and not something people really discussed. So, I set out to find out why it could be harmful for the environment. Here, I answer the questions, what’s so bad about meat and dairy? How does cutting down on them actually help the environment? And, how much difference does one person make?

What’s so bad about meat and dairy?

First up, I’m not expecting anyone to go vegan or vegetarian. I do have a section on this page with possible achievable things anyone can do without having to cut out meat completely.

The second thing I want to make clear is that cows on their own are not terrible things. There’s actually research out there about the benefits of sustainable farming practices on soil and grass, which can help with absorbing carbon dioxide. The bad thing is actually us and the way we are breeding, using, importing, and exporting livestock to meet our excessive meat and dairy consuming demands. So, until we can get the industry to change the way they’re treating livestock and the environment, one immediate solution is to cut down on the demand for it.

The stats below are to give you an idea of how we could be using our local resources in more efficient and effective ways, and how we as individuals can actually have an impact by changing our food habits.

Methane

The first thing you need to know is that cows produce methane.

“Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping 25x more heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And when it just comes to sheer waste, 2,500 dairy cows are equivalent to a city of over 400,000 people. Every minute, the animals raised for food in the US produce 7 million pounds of waste. But where does it all go? Into our waterways and oceans, of course, creating gigantic deadzones.” – Video below (and I have seen these stats on other sites).

Deforestation

“To make room for all these farm animals, we’ve had to remake our planet. In Brazil, this means clearing the Amazon at an astounding rate. Every second, another acre of the world’s rainforests are cleared. And as our most diverse biospheres disappear, every day another 110 animals and insect species go extinct along with it.” – From the above video.

Our excessive consumption of meat and dairy is actually directly impacting on the extinction of other species and also the trees. And why do we need trees? Because they take the carbon dioxide out of the air. And why do we need the carbon dioxide to be gone? Because it drastically heats up our atmosphere. We need the trees to keep our carbon dioxide levels balanced. And right now, the carbon levels are waaay up. So, we need to be rushing out and planting trees, not cutting them down to make room for methane producing livestock.

*While the point of this article is to put things into perspective on a global scale, I have had it pointed out to me that Australia’s environment is different. If you are interested more in Australia, I have a section below addressing this.

Now we’ve established that livestock are contributing a lot to the levels of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But if that’s not enough to change the way you think about beef and dairy, then read on…

Balance – we’ve tipped the scales in a bad way.

While we’re causing certain forms of life to go extinct in a huge way, like 10,000 species a year all because of us (also known as the 6th extinction), we’re also breeding specific animals just so we can eat them. And a lot of these animals say, “Moo.” This is putting the Earth way out of balance. And when things are out of balance, bad things happen.

This image from Live Kindly gives an example of how out of balance we are

If you want to know more about how humans have tipped the scales so far, there’s a good write up on it at Live Kindly.

Livestock are consuming valuable resources (water and food)

Did you know that almost 40% of the world’s grain is fed to livestock instead of people? And that one third of global pastural land is actually used to grow feed for livestock? What if that food was used for people instead? I looked up some stats on how much food the average cow eats, versus how far that food goes in feeding humans. Here’s the results:

Keeping in mind that this all depends on their weight and whether they’re a beef or dairy cow, and how hot the environment is, these are some rough numbers:

How much does 1 cow eat and drink?

Food: 12-25 kilograms of dry food a day, which is an average of 7,200 kilograms of food a year.
Water: 45150 liters a day (they can drink up to 20L a minute), which is an average of around 35,587 liters a year.
* Beef cows are at the lower end of the scale because they’re not lactating (producing milk).

How much does 1 person eat and drink?

Food: 2-2.5 kilograms of food a day (some Westerners eat more). With around 80-110 kilograms of meat per year.
Water: 2-3 liters a day, which averages approx 900 liters a year, which is 180,000 liters for your entire life if you live to be 80 years old.

How much does 1 cow provide us?

A dairy cow can produce 25 liters of milk a day. A beef cow gives us around 220 kilograms of meat.

Beef cows are normally slaughtered at around 18 months old and give enough meat to feed three people for one year. The average beef cow could have consumed 10,800 kilograms of food in its lifetime, which could feed 9 people for one year.

What do these stats mean?

The water consumed by one dairy cow for one year is enough drinking water for 39 humans for one year.

One cow can supply 2 people meat for a year. But that same cow eats enough food to feed 12 people for a year.

A cow needs 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of milk. So every day, we could be supplying 10 people with 2.5 liters of milk each, or 30 people with the same amount of drinking water.

That isn’t even taking into account how much energy goes into growing and processing all the food for the cows, such as baling hay and making grain mix as well.

Does this mean that by becoming vegan, we could end world hunger? Certainly we would have a lot more resources to share around. Read on to find out what a difference you as an individual can make.

And just to keep you going, here’s another video.

How does cutting down on meat and dairy actually help the environment?

The less red meat we eat, the less need for the breeding of cows. The less cows we breed, the less methane is released into the atmosphere and the less the Earth heats up. Also, the less cows we breed, the more we can redirect the resources we currently use on them and use them in more sustainable ways. See? We can create a feedback loop that helps the planet! Don’t believe me? Have another video.

Eating less meat and dairy is actually the most important thing we can do as individuals. So, the vegans get to have the last laugh when we’re all dying 30 years from now due to the climate emergency getting out of control.

So what’s the solution?

I get it, switching to vegetarian or vegan is hard when we’ve been enjoying steak and ice cream our whole lives. So even though that’s one solution, I’ll give you a couple of others.

Cut down on your beef and dairy intake. If you eat beef and dairy every day, maybe try to only have it once a week instead. This will still have a great impact on the environment if we all cut down as a whole.

Switch to chicken and fish (or kangaroo if you’re in Australia). Make the switch to eating more environmentally sustainable meats that don’t produce so much methane and aren’t impacting the environment so much.

Eat produce sourced locally. Another things that’s having a huge impact on the environment is the resources used in the import and export of beef and dairy. Try to eat local and reduce need for extra fuel to be burned to get the food on your plate.

I’m just one person. How much difference can I make?

Well, if you are an average meat eating human and we go by the stats we looked at before, that means you’re eating the equivalent of 1 cow every three years.

If you stop eating beef…

If you eat the average 80-110kg of meat a year (assuming it’s all beef in this case) and you live to be 80 years old you alone will have eaten around 26 cows (1 cow every three years). Are you ready to see how much food and water could have been saved if those cows weren’t bred for your personal consumption?

Those 26 cows would have eaten at least 280,800 kilograms of food and consumed around 639,600 liters of water (around 24,600L per cow for 18 months until they were slaughtered).

You as an individual not eating beef saves enough drinking water for you and 7 other people for 80 years and enough food to feed you and 3 other people for 78 years.

And that’s only the beef part.

If you stopped eating dairy…

I’m not going to get into the morality side of getting a cow pregnant, taking away her baby and then harvesting her milk because that’s a subjective issue. Let’s talk stats.

Let’s assume you consume half a liter of dairy a day (milk,cheese, butter, yoghurt, ice cream). That’s 182.5 liters of milk a year, or 14,600 liters if you live for 80 years. Remember, it takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of milk. So, that means: by cutting out milk, you’re saving the planet 546 liters of water per year, or 43,680 liters of water if you live to be 80.

I’m not a cow expert, so bear with me here. Cows can only be milked for 10 months of the year. So let’s say a cow produces around 7,000 liters of milk per year, and on average cows are milked for 6-8 years. They don’t produce milk for the first two years, so a cow might produce 49,000 liters of milk in its lifetime, enough for around 3 people for their lifetime (80 years).

Over a nine year life (2 years not producing and 7 years producing milk), that cow could have eaten 64,800 kilograms of food and drank 320,000 liters of water. Put all those numbers together and what do we get if that cow wasn’t bred for our dairy desires?

If three people give up dairy for life, they potentially save enough food to feed 7 people and supply 35 people with drinking water for 10 years.

Imagine the effects if you stopped eating both beef and dairy … And imagine if we all stopped today.

And what about Australia?

It was pointed out to me that a lot of Australia’s environment is not suited to growing crops and is therefore ideal for grazing cattle in rural areas. I thought this was a fair point, so I had a quick look into it more. I personally have relatives in the dairy farming industry and have regularly visited the farm. The farm was always very green and the cows seemed happy. I’m not saying farming itself is a bad thing, but it’s the extent of our farming and our consumption of beef and dairy that has put things out of balance.

In the case of Australia, cows are not native. They were first introduced in the late 1700s from Britain when the first fleet arrived with only 6 cows. As you can see from this site, a huge amount of Australia is now used for the beef cattle, and we export a lot of it. And even though they’re out there on the land, apparently one third of them finish off in feed lots where they’re allocated a grain-based diet for 70-360 days, so it’s still not making the best use of our resources.

Now, we all know that when we introduce new species into an environment, the native species suffer. We in Australia have already seen the extinction of the Lesser Bilby due to the introduction of ‘exotic herbivores’ and foxes. This is due to species needing to compete for resources.

In Australia, we have native animals such as kangaroos and emus and non-native animals such as camels and goats that need a lot less water and have a lesser impact on the environment, including the soil, ecosystems, and waterways.

I personally have seen that dairy farmers here need to shoot local wildlife, such as kangaroos, in order to protect their crops for their cattle. I understand this is a necessary business decision, but it is also a waste of local wildlife that we could be breeding and using for meat instead of cattle (if we must still eat meat).

Regarding water, look at this comparison. Cows drink between 45-150 liters a day, kangaroos drink 1.5 liters of water a day. And being smaller than cows, roos certainly eat a lot less food too. Kangaroo meat is actually quite good for us. And it’s much more sustainable since kangaroos produce a lot less methane than cows do. Here’s another article with more facts about the benefits of kangaroo meat over beef. The only down side? Kangaroo meat smells worse than beef.

When driving from Queensland to Perth (across the middle of Australia), my partner and I saw a whole lot of dry land and a heap of dead kangaroos. This is mainly due to drought. A lot of farmers in Australia suffer when there’s drought because with little to no water around, they can’t maintain their crops and cattle. But since roos require a heck of a lot less water, perhaps if we can get farmers to switch from beef to roos, their family businesses would also suffer less – but this requires us changing what we eat.

My conclusion for Australia: Kangaroo meat is much more sustainable than beef. It’s seems to be more environmentally friendly (producing less methane), more sustainable and easier to breed economically (requires less water), and has less impact on our local ecosystems. So perhaps we could block our noses and make the switch to roo meat.

What about saving the animals?

If your concern is saving animals over saving resources, I’ve got you covered. According to this article:

By not eating meat, you as an individual save between 371 and 582 animals per year. This amounts to around 46,500 animals if you live to be 80.

Because, remember, not all the meat we eat is beef. We also eat a lot of pork, chicken and sea animals, which are a lot smaller in size than a cow. Wherever we take our stance on morality and the human place in the food chain, a ratio of 46,500 animals to 1 human is just an insane cost to the Earth (not to mention your wallet).

So, if you ever think one person can’t make a difference, think of the 46,500 animals, 7 people looking for fresh water, and 3 starving people that could tell you otherwise.

Final notes…

To wrap it up, here’s a video on what would happen if we all turned vegetarian, which presents the good and bad sides of the equation.

I plan to make some changes to my diet after writing all that. It’s up to you what you want to do with it πŸ™‚

P.S. Forgive me if my numbers are a little off. I am neither a mathematician or a scientist. I hope these facts are right, but there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. If you find something that needs correcting, please let me know. Can a scientist please weigh in on this and give us the precise stats? It’s actually blowing my mind.

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  1. This is very thorough! And to my knowledge, it’s all correct. I’ve also reduced my consumption by eating meat only once a week. I also replaced milk with soy or rice milk. I guess I’m 80% vegan :-).

    You mentioned eliminating beef from your diet but what about milk and cheese? The same cow is still being raised for milk, butter, and cheese.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I do have a section on the effects if you eliminate dairy.
      I agree that both have an impact! If you’re asking about me personally, I don’t drink milk – replacing it with soy or almond or coconut milk. But I do occasionally consume other forms of dairy. I’ll certainly be cutting down on all of it.

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